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Learning Writing

SFF writing critique method

Liked The Ghost of Workshops Past: How Communism, Conservatism, and the Cold War Still Mold Our Paths Into SFF Writing by an author (tor.com)

In 2016, Neil Gaiman tweeted: “If you want to be a writer, you want to go to Clarion, NEED to go to Clarion.”

The tweet got significant pushback, with replies calling it “crushing”, “hurtful”, and “cruel”, including from other professionals. Eight hours later, Gaiman clarified: “Obviously you don’t actually need to go to Clarion/Clarion West to be a writer.”

Both [Matthew Salesses and Felicia Rose Chavez] illustrated ways this type of critique can wreck writers who come from a cultural background not shared by others in the workshop…And both argued that the traditional workshop in which the author is enforced to silence will…suppress minority voices…

When I worked at the writing center in college, it was a one on one coaching experience, but I feel like it sounds more empowering than the Milford method, if you get a decent coach — the student would read their own work aloud, then the tutor would identify patterns of challenges (basically always the thesis statement 😉) and ask questions to help them refine what they were trying to say. Back and forth discussion was an important component — we wouldn’t write a new thesis for them, but coach them through refining iterations to find what worked for their essay. I only tutored for fiction a couple times but I think it was still a useful way to help the author figure out what was or wasn’t working towards what they wanted to achieve. I’m more into guiding the author into finding their own path than saying there’s a right or wrong way to fix their story. It also sounds less judgmental of the author’s voice and taste, since it doesn’t usually comment on those (I might point it out if I noticed the tone felt too casual if they were writing something that typically uses a more formal style — but we were trained in using nonviolent communication, using language like “I noticed” and framing observations in a nonjudgmental way) — which might be more protective of an author’s unique style and approach. I think one of the most important things to consider when editing writing is protecting the author’s voice and style, while helping them communicate their point better.

One repeated caution is the phenomenon that some participants stop writing entirely afterward—sometimes for a year or two or five, sometimes forever.

The one time I had a couple formal critiques, through Norwescon, I was basically shell-shocked by getting feedback and having no opportunity to explain anything they’d misunderstood from reading fifteen pages of a five hundred page story. It shook my confidence a lot, especially getting basically zero positive feedback (whereas coaching always made a point to call out what the writer is already doing well and made use of compliment sandwiches because crushing someone with everything they’ve done wrong is not conducive psychologically). I didn’t quit writing altogether, but I did abandon the book I was writing, and lost the confidence to give other writers feedback because I was in doubt of my own capabilities and my ability to discern issues and provide useful feedback.

Though innovative, that development happened against a backdrop of harsh social conservatism and New Criticism, with one of its leading crusaders even opining that it was dead wrong to consider writing a creative field—writing, he felt, should instead be synonymous with the field of criticism…In such a political landscape, it is no surprise such a strictly-regimented peer critique method was so appealing: a “learn by doing” class in which the instructor does not need to figure out how to become a teacher of writing, only a critic.

Is literary criticism inherently judgmental, a levying of the reader’s taste against the author’s?

As we look back at this uneasy history, it helps crystallize why a method like Milford would fail more often for writers of color or other minority students in the workshop. The Iowa method purposely eschewed teaching; instead it used the power of cold interaction with a group of critics to mold writers into a “1930s America” majority opinion of good literature.

In Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses points out that writing workshops are often culturally homogenous along several axes. Thus, when a mostly-white, mostly-American workshop makes statements on what “the reader” will understand or enjoy, that hypothetical “reader” is far from a generic representation, but instead reflects the backgrounds of the participants.

This doesn’t sound like an ideal approach to promote diversity of style or story that come out of different backgrounds, whether cultural heritage or lived experience or neurodiversity. We know too that authors of color have been gatekept out of traditional publishing in SFF for many years, this feels like another way to drum authors out of genre. It is good to see people rethinking whether this is the best way to level up writers in the SFF community.